“Let Your Freak Flag Fly” is the unofficial motto for Asheville; certainly this effulgent North Carolina city feels like a hybrid of Camden Market and Hebden Bridge. In the US, the secret has long been out; Asheville is one of the country’s leading tourist destinations and Good Morning America maintained it is one of most beautiful destinations in the nation, owing to its spectacular Appalachian mountain views, its rich arts scene and outstanding architecture.
The Red and White Trolley Tour, which takes in Asheville’s neo-gothic “skyscraper”, the Jackson Building, and the astonishing Art Deco City Hall, with its pink, birthday cake-like top, is the easiest way to navigate this very manageable city. It’s also a hit among craft-beer devotees and art and music lovers, with a flourishing gig scene centred around the Orange Peel venue. It’s little wonder Kristen Wiig and Owen Wilson are frequent visitors to this free-spirited city.
Brits are probably more familiar with “alternative” US scenes in Oregon’s Portland (the setting for hit comedy series Portlandia) and Austin, Texas (venue for the prestigious South by Southwest festival) than Asheville. It seems we have yet to discover Asheville’s delights for ourselves.
“There is a dash of gipsy in every one of us who is worth a salt,” proclaims a street sign as I arrive. There is a defiantly hippie vibe: cross-dressed nuns riding bikes, tie-dye, incense, bongo drums, place mats with slogans like “children are the message we send to the future”, pan pipes playing on busy College Street, stalls peddling chakra healing and crystal energy sculptures. Stores such as the Little Volcano promise “Yoga Mischief and Magic”, while a defunct Woolworth’s houses arts and craft market stalls, one of which is selling a T-shirt emblazoned with “Asheville, Where the Normal Is Weird”. I think of Withnail and I’s Danny bemoaning that “they’re selling hippie wigs in Woolworth’s, man.”
It was during the 1980s that Asheville became a place of “peace, love and understanding”, embracing new-age hippies and middle-class Floridians. A century before that the city had marketed itself as “the number one cure” for pulmonary illnesses, an elixir for a factory-focused nation.
A remnant of the Gilded Age can be found on the outskirts of the city. Between 1889 and 1895, the industrialist George Washington Vanderbilt built the extraordinary Biltmore Estate (billed as “America’s Downton”) here. This 252-room, chateau-inspired folly remains the largest privately owned house in the US. Vanderbilt also funded Biltmore Village, which was intended to recreate an “English community” with its striking Episcopal Church, railroad station and Tudor-style shops and restaurants.
However, there’s more to Asheville than grand designs and hippie paraphernalia. The hordes of bachelor and bachelorette parties mainly come for the flourishing micro-brewery scene. Hometown of the Green Man Brewery (of creamy Green Man Porter fame), as well as the Wicked Weed Brewery – which produces, among many others, a beer called Oblivion, containing sour blackberries and dates – and the Highland Brewing Company, which kicked off the city’s beer revolution,
On tap: craft beers on sale at an Asheville bar (Corbis)Asheville is home to more breweries per capita than any US city (21). It became one of the fastest growing beer scenes on the East Coast during the 1990s, partly thanks to its plentiful water supply and the 20,000-acre protected watershed out in the Great Smoky Mountains. According to Tony Kiss, “The Beer Guy” for local newspaper Asheville Scene, Ginger’s Revenge is the finest sup. (“It just popped in the mouth and cried out for another sip”.”) But the punters, many of whom are pedalling around the hilly city centre on the Amazing Pub Cycle tour, appear more concerned with downing beers at every red light and belting out Whitney Houston songs.
Perhaps a little less perilous is the Brews Cruise Bus (with the slogan “Cruisin’ for a Brewsin’”), which takes in the excellent Pisgah Brewery, on the road to nearby Black Mountain. Its crisp, clean pale ale blends rich, organic malts with whole-leaf Chinook and Nugget hop. Located at the southern end of the Blue Ridge Mountains in the Southern Appalachians, Black Mountain feels further than 15 miles from hipster Asheville, with white picket fences marking out houses along the Swannanoa River. Originally this region attracted visitors for its healing properties – its “clean air” lured tuberculosis sufferers – and today Black Mountain is the ideal launchpad for a variety of revitalising hikes, from the sedate to the Swannanoa Valley Rim Hike. This 4.5-mile trek explores a portion of the Swannanoa Valley Rim on the easternmost boundary of the Cherokee Nation (this land was once all theirs) and is partly off-trail, requiring bushwhacking.
If you hanker for a waterfall, there’s Skinny Dip Falls, reputedly a favourite of Owen Wilson, on the Blue Ridge Parkway. (Contrary to its name it’s best to keep your clothes on, especially since this is bear country.) And for serious walkers there’s the arduous 2,180-mile-long Appalachian Trail, the subject of Bill Bryson’s novel A Walk in the Woods, which has been turned into a film starring Robert Redford, due for release next month.
The Pisgah Brewery also stages concerts, and I watch the excellent pop-rock singer Jason Isbell (think John Cougar Mellencamp) among 2,000 people in a field in its grounds.
The music scene is extremely robust in Asheville, too, with all-day busking in lively Pack Square and Pritchard Park, and recognised names (Beastie Boys, Bob Dylan, Ice Cube) gracing the Orange Peel Social Aid and Pleasure Club, named one of America’s best rock venues by Rolling Stone magazine.
High and mighty: the Asheville skyline (Corbis)At Bomba! Café on Pack Square, one of the employees, nearing the end of his shift, cranks up Johnny Cash’s “Folsom Prison Blues” before departing with a friendly wave on his skateboard. Outside, a bluegrass band is feverishly playing for tips on the sidewalk.
The freak flag flies proudly in Asheville, but the weirdest aspect of my short visit here is surely the fact that I haven’t seen a single other tourist.
Ben Walsh travelled with US Airways (0845 6003300;usairways.com), which flies from Heathrow to Asheville via Charlotte from £800 return.
Quality Inn, Black Mountain, North Carolina (001 828 669 9950; choicehotels.com). Double rooms start at $100 (£64), B&B.
Asheville’s Gray Line Trolley Tour (graylineasheville.com).
Brews Cruise Tour (ashevillebrewscruise.com).
Pisgah Brewery (pisgahbrewing.com).
Green Man Brewery (greenmanbrewery.com).
Biltmore Estate (biltmore.com).
Swannanoa Valley Museum (history.swannanoavalleymuseum.org) offers information on walking tours around Black Mountain.